1 Writing what you know
1.1 Using life experiences in your fiction
Creative writing courses and manuals often offer the advice ‘write what you know’. This is undoubtedly good advice, yet what exactly does it mean? Many writers testify to using their life experiences – their memories and their everyday perceptions – as a source for their fiction or poetry, as well as for their autobiographies and memoirs. Yet these experiences aren't necessarily extraordinary in themselves. You don't have to have led an unusual or exotic life in order to write. You do, however, need to raise your level of perception above the ordinary. Writing what you know means being aware of your own world, both past and present, in as full a way as possible.
This course will introduce and briefly elaborate on some of the ways in which you might ‘know’ the world around you. By looking at the commonplace details of your life in a different way, using your sensory perceptions and learning to use your own memories, you will be exercising certain writing muscles, ones that need regular flexing. In this way you may discover you know more than you thought.
Write down a quick sentence in response to the advice ‘write what you know’. What does it immediately suggest to you?
You may react positively to such advice; you may be able to go off happily and make use of every last ounce of your life experience, without doubt or consternation. Or you may think: ‘I don't know anything’; ‘all that I know is boring’; ‘nobody would want to know what I know’ or ‘I know too much, how could I possibly get that down in words?’
Whatever your response, the aim of this course is to broaden the meaning of such advice, so it will act as a prompt the next time you hear it, reminding you that you have numerous ways of exploiting the raw materials of your own life.
The purpose of this activity is to provide you with an example of how a known writer has exploited his everyday knowledge and memories in his work. Clicking on the link below will allow you to listen to an extract of an interview with Andrew Cowan, a writer and senior lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Below is some background information you may find of interest.
Pig was Andrew Cowan’s first novel, and it won numerous awards, including the Betty Trask Award and the Sunday Times ‘Young Writer of the Year Award’. Published in 1994, its meticulous realism received great critical acclaim. The novel has obvious connections to Cowan’s own background – it has a Scottish grandfather and is set in a new town in decline very similar to Corby, Cowan’s hometown. He has subsequently published two other novels and at the time of the interview his fourth novel, What I Know, was about to be published. The novels discussed in the interview are Pig (1994), Common Ground (1996) and Crustaceans (2000).
When his grandmother dies and his grandfather goes into a home, teenager Danny is determined to look after their elderly pig. He and his girlfriend, Surinder secretly meet at the grandparents’ house, enjoying a fragile summer idyll, a refuge from the racist neighbours and family members, brief respite from the blighted new town in which they live.
Ashley, a disillusioned geography teacher, chronicles the birth of his daughter, Maggie, in letters to his globe-trotting brother, Douglas. Painting an intimate picture of his relationship with his partner, Jay, the novel offers a bleak picture of inner city life, and the couple’s growing need for some sort of political involvement. It comes in the form of the road-protest movement: the novel also charts the controversial birth of a road and the campaign to save the nearby Hogslea Common.
Set on one day – 22nd December, which would have been his dead son Euan’s sixth birthday – Paul drives to the coast, as thick snow lies on the ground. Talking to the imaginary Euan in the back of the car, he tells him the story of his birth, of his first words, and of Paul’s relationship with Ruth, Euan’s mother. He also tells the story of his own parents, including the unexplained death of his mother when he was a child.
Some questions to think about while you listen:
How did the idea for Cowan’s second novel, Common Ground, come about?
What parts of Pigwere imagined, what parts researched and what parts autobiographical?
How does Cowan use everyday details in his novels?
Cowan, Andrew (1994) Pig, London: Sceptre.
Cowan, Andrew (1996) Common Ground, London: Penguin.
Cowan, Andrew (2000) Crustaceans, London: Sceptre.
Cowan, Andrew (2005) What I Know, London: Sceptre.
Click below to listen to an inroduction to Andrew Cowan.
Transcript: An introduction to Andrew Cowan
Click below to listen to an interview with Andrew Cowan.